The Agenda

How to think about Development

 

Charles Kenny proposes a simple thesis: The world today is witnessing divergence in incomes, and convergence in outcomes. His book, Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding–and How we can Improve the World Even More, is a clear and accessible introduction to the development question, with a thoroughly-evidenced thesis and a slightly misleading title.

The title is slightly misleading because Kenny in fact highlights the ways in which global development clearly is not succeeding. Classic theories of economic development, like Solow’s, predict that poor countries’ per-capita income should converge with wealthier countries’ over time. A very rough sketch of the theory is that (1) economic output and hence income is a product of labor, capital, and technology; so (2) countries with low per-capita incomes (the cheapest labor) can yield the highest returns on marginal investments of capital of the latest technology; which (3) will attract new investments of capital and technology into the poorest countries, until all countries are on a level, per-capita-income wise.  (The key assumptions here are that technology moves frictionlessly over borders and that all labor is equally productive in the same capital and technology environment.) 

But this just has not happened. As Kenny writes, “GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa rose from $477 to only $561 between 1960 and 1999. In the same period, high-income countries increased their incomes from $13,000 to an average of $31,000.” That’s precisely the opposite of what the Solow growth model predicts. So one of the key assumptions must be wrong. 

Today’s economists point to “production technology” — something which isn’t strictly technology and isn’t classified as a component of labor either — as the culprit. It’s sort of in between — the non-physical, perhaps ineffable, social knowledge and mores that enable and motivate people within certain cultures to be productive modern capitalists. 

The good news is that in most measures of quality of life — health, life expectancy, education, respect for individual rights, etc. — the world has seen tremendous convergence. Despite my cynical disposition, I see no escape from Kenny’s data on this point. Today’s Zimbabwean may not have much more income than a mid-19th century Brit, but he does have a longer life expectancy, much better medicine, cellphone access to check in on distant agricultural markets and loved ones, etc., and even a better chance of a basic education. Kenny details all of this extensively. (The same is true of inequality within countries. The very rich and the middle class in America today are more disparate in income than they were in 1800, but the middle class has a dietary variety, life-expectancy, mobility, and internet access not very different from Bill Gates’, and much better than yesteryear’s rich.)

The easiest way to explain and articulate this is that physical technology is simple to bring across borders, but social technologies are more difficult. It’s relatively easy to install mosquito nets, offer condoms, inject vaccines, and purify water in any location — the history of those technologies or where they were developed is irrelevant to their function. But transplanting the whole system of sub-conscious mores, unspoken rules, rhetorics, habits, and inherited knowledge that underpin a functional society’s economy (and which may just have been serendipitous accidents of Western history) is proving to be much more difficult. 

I am admittedly inexpert on this topic, not close to qualified to evaluate or even articulate Kenny’s thesis. But this idea resonated with me as an embodiment of some of the deepest insights of the conservative intellectual tradition (Kenny might not put it that way). Both Michael Oakeshotte and Friedrich Hayek thought that technocratic plans for the rational improvement of the world would be thwarted because societies are in fact regulated by inarticulate, inherited, rules that are embedded historical, local practices. The written law could only channel and embody them, not replace or remake them. Modern development economics’ bafflement by “production technology” seems in some way a confirmation of that idea. In the end, I think the book reaffirms that the scientific and technological innovations of our very brightest, not rational planning, are the key to progress. 

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Kat Timpf Chased Out of Brooklyn Bar

Fox News personality and National Review contributor Kat Timpf was forced to leave a bar in Brooklyn over the weekend after a woman she had never met became enraged upon learning she worked in conservative media. Timpf, who has twice previously been harassed while socializing in New York City, first described ... Read More
Film & TV

The Dan Crenshaw Moment

Given the spirit of our times, things could have gone so differently. On November 3, when Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson mocked Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw’s eye patch, saying he looked like a “hit man in a porno movie” — then adding, “I know he lost his eye in war or whatever” — it was a ... Read More
Elections

Fire Brenda Snipes

Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections in Florida’s Broward County, does not deserve to be within a thousand miles of any election office anywhere in these United States. She should be fired at the earliest possible opportunity. Snipes has held her position since 2003, in which year her predecessor, ... Read More
PC Culture

The Lonely Mob

Just before the election, an Andrew Gillum intern named Shelby Shoup was arrested and charged with battery after assaulting some college Republicans on the campus of Florida State University. It was rather less exciting than that sounds: She went on a rant about “Nazis” and “fascism” — Gillum’s ... Read More
Elections

The Georgia Smear

Back in 2016, when Trump refused to say he’d necessarily accept the result if he lost, we were told that this was a terrible violation of democratic norms. Now, refusing to accept that you lost an election is the highest form of patriotism. Not only are the media and the Left not pressuring Stacey Abrams to ... Read More
World

How Immigration Changes Britain

Almost nothing is discussed as badly in America or Europe as the subject of immigration. And one reason is that it remains almost impossible to have any sensible or rational public discussion of its consequences. Or rather it is eminently possible to have a discussion about the upsides (“diversity,” talent, ... Read More
Elections

Sorry, Brian Kemp Still Won

Here was the state of play as of yesterday per the Kemp campaign’s breakdown of publicly available information: As of Saturday, November 10, 2018 (12:00 p.m.) *Information below is public.  Total votes reported: 3,924,658 Kemp: 1,975,162 (50.33%) Abrams: 1,912,383 (48.73%) Metz: ... Read More